As modern, non-traditional sci-fi flicks go, Arrival (Paramount), directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario and Enemy) and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, touches down somewhere between Under the Skin and The Martian. Playing with the perception of time and memory, Arrival introduces the concept of quid pro quo as a means of negotiating with alien visitors in what is destined to become a zero sum game.
The titular arrival involves a dozen vessels that suddenly appear in countries across the globe, including the United States, China and Russia. When vertical, a position they remain in for most of the movie, they come across as massive elongated avocados. When hovering horizontally they look like updated renditions of old-school flying saucers.
Why are they here on earth? The military and various other governmental agencies are stumped. That’s when linguistics professor Louise (Adams) and scientist Ian (Renner), each a renowned specialist in their respective fields, are recruited by high-ranking, no-nonsense Colonel Walker to assist in the situation.
Boarding the alien aircraft during the intervals when the ship’s door opens to permit humans to enter, we watch as Louise, who is clearly out of her element and almost immediately doffs her hazmat suit, comes face-to-face with the aliens. Equipped with a write-on board and markers, Louise is prepared to begin the process of communication.
Separated by an unbreakable barrier, the aliens, who resemble gigantic squids with the flesh and coloring of an elephant, appear out of a soupy fog. At the end of their limbs are hand-like appendages akin to giant starfish that emit an inky smoke, forming symbols to represent language. Soon, a line of communication is established between Louise and the two aliens she and Ian nickname Abbott and Costello.
However, progress isn’t moving fast enough to satisfy Walker and pushy Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg). The Chinese and Russians are taking military action, bringing the planet to the brink of destruction. A series of disruptions occur, including a bomb planted on the alien ship by a pair of rogue soldiers who are followers of an InfoWars-style website. But Louise is intent on breaking through the language barrier with the remarkably forgiving beings. She even goes so far as coming into direct contact with them.
Throughout the film, we see what could be flashbacks involving Louise and a daughter she has lost to some terrible disease. This is all part of the memory and perception play. It is also essential to making this a thinking-person’s movie as various plot points unfold, requiring close viewing. As the first of this season’s sci-fi epics (the other is Passengers, with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt), Arrival sets the bar high and doesn’t disappoint.